Coming into today's Armed Forces Bowl contest, the contrasting styles of the Army and SMU offense took an unusual twist as the game unfolded on Thursday.
It was the Black Knights' triple option offense that appeared to be quicker striking and shorter drive oriented, albeit a lot of that had to do with Army's defense causing three critical turnovers. While the Mustangs' offense seem to mimic the Army's style of very long time consuming drives ... unfortunately for SMU their offense didn't really jump start until the second half of play.
But as an Army player, coach and fan, there were several factors at stake on Thursday.
• This would be the final opportunity of the 2010 season to come away with a signature victory. The Black Knights missed out on three previous opportunities against Notre Dame at Yankee Stadium, Air Force at Michie Stadium and the year ending classic versus Navy at Lincoln Financial Stadium in Philadelphia.
• A win over SMU would be Army's first win this season over a team with a winning record. Or to make more exact, it would the team's first win over such a team in twenty-two games.
• Of course it would be Army's first bowl win in twenty-five years.
• The team would finish over the .500 mark at 7-6. Hence, their first winning season since 1996.
With SMU receiving the opening kickoff, it was apparent right from the start that their were going to play wide open football in their run & shoot offense. On their first play of the game from their own 20 yard line, quarterback Kyle Padron hit wide receiver Aldrick Robinson on a 45 yard pass and it appeared that it was going to be a long day for the Black Knights' secondary, but as they say
appearances can be deceiving.
Throughout the day, this was a charged and determined Army defense, that would be lead by middle linebacker Stephen Anderson.
On SMU's next play, Padron, who was rolling out to his left to pass, just seem to lose control of the ball and as it hit to the turf an oncoming Josh McNary received a favorable bounce
. Swooped it up and off to the races. The senior defensive end galloped 55 yards along with a convoy of Army defenders for the Black Knights' first score of the game and SMU's first of three costly first half turnovers.
On the Mustangs' next possession their offense showed some signs of life, but Army's bend but don't break defense held as SMU missed on 35 yard field goal attempt.
With 8:36 remaining in the 1st quarter, the Black Knights went on an 8 play - 80 yard drive that was capped off by a 13 yard scamper by slotback Malcolm Brown around the left end.
Alex Carlton's extra point was block, but the Black Knights appeared to be in control with a 13-0 lead.
Through the balance of the 1st half, Army's defense and special teams made clutch plays.
• Once again it was Anderson, who was named Army's player of the game following 14 tackles, one sack and his red-zone/drive stopping interception in the first quarter performance.
• After Army's opening 2nd quarter drive stalled at the SMU 35 yard line, Jonathan Bulls who had been struggling of late, punched his punt to the Mustangs' two yard line.
• On the next play of the same drive, Padron hit on a 39 yard pass. However, the ensuing two plays saw defensive tackle Jarrett Mackey bring down the SMU ball carrier for a one yard loss, followed by cornerback Josh Jackson stepping in front of a Padron overthrown pass on the Army 32 yard line and return it to the SMU 30.
• On Army's next possession, it was three & out, but the defensive theme didn't change and on a 2nd & 18 for SMU at their own 18, Anderson read the screen pass perfectly and leveled the running back for a two yard loss, where the Mustangs eventually had to punt.
• On the Black Knights' ensuing possession, they called upon the leg of kicker Alex Carlton, who was good on his 44 yard field goal attempt that gave Army a 17-0 1st half lead. It also marked Carlton's 11th field goal in a row, over a six game period.
• Anderson was not alone defensively, as Zach Watts Zach Watts, Steve Erzinger, Jarrett Mackey and the rest were active through the first segment of the game. Watts registered four first half tackles.
Clearly this was more than Ellerson and his staff probably hoped for
being able to pitch a shutout 1st half shutout of the high powered SMU offense. Coupled with the idea that Army would receive the ball to open up the 2nd half (3rd quarter).
Reversal of Fortune
Not completely sure what Coach Jones said to his SMU squad during halftime, but it was clear that this was not the same team that Army controlled throughout the first half.
The Mustangs come out on fire and Padron leads them on a 13 play, 92 yard drive that takes 6:00 and nets them 7 points. However, it would be SMU's only possession of the 3rd quarter. On their first possession of the 4th quarter, they go on a 10 play, 74 yard drive and use up 5:30 off the clock.
With the Army offense unable to get it going, SMU's offense on full throttle and Army with a very slight lead of 16-14, the question became, can the Black Knights hold on?
The Final Two Drives
After Bulls comes though again by launching a 57 yard punt, SMU takes over at their own 37 yard line and 8:15 remaining in the contest.
The Mustangs were able to convert two first downs that gave them 1st & 10 at the Army 35 yard line. After two plays netted only one yard, SMU was left with a 3rd & 9
as Padron drops back to pass, he avoids a blitzing Jordan Trimble and completes a pass for three yards, but a vicious hit by Josh Jackson on the receivers drops him on the spot.
It is that spot that SMU kicker Matt Szymanski would attempt a 47 yard go ahead field goal into the wind with 4:10 remaining in the game. Unfortunately for SMU, Szymanski's kick sails left, where it appeared that the wind just pulled it.
Now it would be up to the Army offense that to this point had been relatively ineffective. They would be called upon to run out the remaining 4:05 on the game clock and be crowned the Armed Forces Bowl 2010 Champions.
Army's first two plays only netted 5 yards and on 3rd and 5 with 3:20 remaining, quarterback Trent Steelman bootlegs to the left side and manages to stretch himself for 6 yards and a Black Knight first down.
But before they are anointed Champions, the offense was faced with another crucial 3rd down (& 4) at the Army 47 yard line.
Steelman rolled to his right and was able to get the ball over the extended hands of one of the SMU linebackers as he hit receiver Davyd Brooks for 22 yards to the SMU 31.
"Well, I'm doing a couple things in that moment," shares Army head coach Rich Ellerson, as he talks about his team's final series. "First, Ian (Shields) and I are talking. We're saying, Okay, we converted the first third down with bootleg, so keep the ball in the quarterback's hands, stay in bounds. If we could get the first down, great. Well, we did."
"We go back to the well. It was the same thing. Okay, we're going to try this back to the wide side of the field, keep the ball in the quarterback's hands. If we don't get it, we'll keep the clock running. They're out of timeouts. Gonna take a delay of game. So I say, Okay, I'm going down the defense now. If they're gonna take a needed someone to push us a little more for it, it's just kind of like a dream come true. It's a pact we made. It's a decision.
Human will is the strongest thing on this earth. When you make a decision, you have to believe in it."
"That's exactly what we did," shared the Black Knights' mentor.
The Black Knights took a team rush to run out the clock that sealed a very special win for the Army football program.
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